Bartender of the Month: September 2004

By Fritz Hahn
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2004;

Who: Derek Brown
Where: Palena
Why we like him: So I'm sitting at a pretty stylish cocktail bar when I get a text message from my friend Brian, telling me I have to try the Manhattan at Palena, the much-heralded Cleveland Park restaurant. He helpfully sends a recipe, cribbed from bartender Derek Brown: Maker's Mark bourbon, (Italian) Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, bitters and a bourbon-soaked cherry, with bourbon-infused cherry juice spooned on the rim.

Sounds amazing. Later the same night, Brian texts again to inform me he's having a "pickled martini" with Hendricks, a cucumber-infused gin, pickles and brine. Now, I love Hendrick's. And while I like the food at Palena, I'd never just gone there for drinks.

At Palena, Derek Brown pours classic cocktails with a twist. (Fritz Hahn - washingtonpost.com)

_____Bartender of the Month_____

Who's your favorite bartender? Tell us, and we may put him or her on the spot next month.

Read about our previous bartenders of the month.

If you haven't, Derek's a great reason to visit. His modern takes on classic cocktails edge out the $9 "cafe menu" available at the bar, and service is top-notch -- he makes sure water (and martini) glasses stay full, he remembers your name and he always has a minute to talk. When you need a wine or cocktail recommendation, again, Derek's your man.

Derek's is what we could call the Standard Bartender Story: Derek started working in a restaurant (the much-missed Rocky's Cafe in Adams Morgan ) to earn some extra money while in school (George Mason). He waited tables before moving to bartending and discovering a taste for classic cocktails like the Bronx (see below).

Two years ago, he made his first visit to the lush, curving bar at Palena. "I came in here and fell in love with the bar," he says. "I thought, 'This bar is beautiful. I wanted to get in on this.'" Derek has worked his way up to the point where he's doing some managing, waiting tables and serving in addition to bartending, but he's still reigning over the cocktail menu, and it's always a treat to find him shaking or stirring.

What's YOUR favorite drink?
Bourbon -- Booker's straight on the rocks. In terms of cocktails, it's the Bronx (gin, sweet and dry vermouth and orange juice). And not just because it's on the menu.

What's the drink you make most often?
The Sidecar (Courvoisier, Cointreau, lemon juice and a sugar-powdered rim). It's really versatile. It's sweet and girly, but you can be manly and drink it, too -- it's got cognac in it, you know.

What was the last drink you didn't know how to make?
It was something I can't remember, but I couldn't make it anyway because it involved Sloe Gin or something. I'm not good with shots and that sort of thing -- I always fall back on the classic cocktails.

What do you have to do to get '86ed?
Be belligerent to the servers. It's only happened once.

Finish the line: A man walks into a bar . . .
How about this: A termite walks into a bar and says, "Hey, is the bar tender?"
Okay, that's awful.

What song do you wish they'd take off the jukebox?
I pick the CDs, but I'd get rid of Caetano Veloso's version of "Feelings."

The first sign a patron's drunk is:
They've had a lot of drinks?

Have you ever dated/gone home with someone you met while you were working?
No, I don't like to do that. They know where you work.

How cheap are people, really?
They're not cheap. Every now and then you get a person who doesn't leave too much, but that doesn't mean they're cheap. But I'm lucky.

What piece of bar etiquette do you wish people would learn?
The one thing I couldn't stand at Rocky's is "bar art." What I call "bar art" -- you know, [people] tear up a book of matches or a napkin or something and arrange it in an interesting pattern, or they try to make a person out of a straw or something. Maybe it's a nervous habit. I don't know. But it makes a mess.

Give us a piece of advice.
Wow. I do that so frequently that people ask me not to. How about this: The best beverage you can drink is water.

© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive